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How to be a medieval thief (and how to catch one)

Have you ever wondered what scams and tricks people thought of in the Middle Ages? The Book of Charlatans is one such guide, and one can read about the ways of thieves. Fortunately, it also gives methods to catch them.

The Book of Charlatans is a highly-entertaining work from the 13th century, written by Jamal al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Jawbari. It is written as a guide to exposing the scams and tricks of various kinds used by con-artists and swindlers. They could be the tricks of preachers pretending to make miracles, or those who impersonate dentists and make people think they have small worms in their teeth. It also offered detailed explanations on how these tricks can be done, where one could use various ingredients to do things like change one’s skin colour or coat themselves in a special liquid so they won’t be burned by fire.

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Al-Jawbari warns his readers about the scams – his catchphrase is “Wise up to these things!” – but one can also sense that he often admired the ingenuity of these tricks. This is probably because he was likely involved in some of these cons, and he certainly was friends with those who did. He often adds that he knows dozens or hundreds of other scams, but he doesn’t want to bore his readers.

Parts of The Book of Charlatans deals with thieves, offering us details on their practices. Some are simple, such as using a special type of oil-cake to feed guard dogs, which is so sticky that they will spend the rest of the night trying to get it out of their mouths. Others are much more detailed, like throwing an animal into a house and seeing if someone comes to get rid of it (if they don’t that means an empty house that will be easy pickings). Al-Jawbari writes about how some thieves have an accomplice – a boy or girl, seven or eight years old. They roam the neigbourhood, looking for an open door:

If he finds an open door, he shoves the child through and the child enters, crying, the man in pursuit. If the man sees anyone, he says, “Chase the little brat out! He’s cost me a lot of money!” Some people do as he says but others have pity on the child and say, “Please leave him with us for a while till he calms down. You’ve scared him to bits!”

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The child then stays in the house for a little while, sometimes getting to eat a meal. But when an opportunity presents itself, the young thief grabs what he can and slips out of the house. If that doesn’t happen and the child returns with nothing, then they have a back-up plan:

He stays away from them for a week, then goes back and says, “Swear to God! My father (or uncle) beat me and was going to hang me by my feet, so I’m running away from him.” Then he stays with them till another opportunity to take something presents itself and he swipes it and makes off.

For those who need to break into a house, they need a variety of tools in order to open a hole through a wall – a crowbar, an iron spoke, a metal plate, a lock breaker, and “an iron hand with iron fingers” (he likely means a gauntlet), The part of actually making a hole is easy, but you need to do it quietly and check to see if anyone inside hears you. Al-Jawbari explains that these thieves might carry with them dried bread and beans, so that if anyone comes to investigate noises, he can crunch them in his teeth, so that they think “the cat has caught a mouse and is eating it.”

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Another essential tool for breaking and entering is a turtle. Here is how al-Jawbari explains it:

The man will have a flint with him, which he strikes. He will also have a candle the size of a little finger, which he lights and sticks to the turtle’s back. Then he sends the turtle through the hole, and the turtle takes a turn around the whole house while the man observes what’s there and finds out where to go. All this is while he’s still on the outside of the hole. If anyone becomes aware of his presence, he withdraws and leaves. If not, he will have become familiar with the whole house and its contents and what route he should take, and everything about it will be familiar to him. When the candle goes out, he enters through the hole, goes where he wants, takes what he wants, and comes out unharmed. Wise up to these things!

A 15th century depiction of a turtle – British Library MS Sloane 4016 f. 98v

Al-Jawbari also tells us of scams to expose a thief. His examples involve gathering the suspects, and subtly tricking the thief. In this example, the charlatan is looking for someone who stole a piece of cloth:

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Take a rooster and write something meaningless on a piece of paper and place it around its neck. Then they put the rooster underneath a large bowl in a dark room, having first, without anyone noticing, smeared the back of the bowl with a bit of garlic. They leave the room and stand at the door and say to the suspects, “You must each go in one at a time and place your hand on the back of the bowl. When the thief places his hand on it, the rooster will crow, beat its wings, and then crow three more times.” When he says this, the thief thinks he’ll be caught and so he doesn’t dare put his hand on the bowl. As each goes in and comes out, the charlatans tells him, “Open your palm!” and when he does so, he sniffs it. If he’s innocent, he pushes the man’s hand aside as a smell of garlic on his hand will be noticeable. If the thief hasn’t dared to place his hand on the bowl, the charlatans finds nothing when he sniffs it and he knows he’s the thief. He tells everyone, “Wait until tomorrow and the cloth will appear.”

Once that part of the show is over, the charlatan finds the thief in private, and says to him, “I know it was you and nobody else who took the cloth. I personally have no desire to expose you, and the best option is for you to put back what you took without anyone noticing. I will not, I swear, tell a single creature. If you don’t, though, I will inform on you and bear witness against you and there’s an end to it.” The thief will ultimately return back what he took. Al-Jawbari notes similar methods to achieve the same goal, including one that he made up himself, involving a hollowed-out egg, milk to be used as ink, and pretending to conjure spirits.

The highly-interesting The Book of Charlatans is translated by Humphrey Davies as part of the the Library of Arabic Literature series from New York University Press.. You can learn more about the book from the publisher’s website or buy it on Amazon.com.

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